Poet Of The Week

Javier Zamora

     September 10–16, 2018

Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He holds a BA from the University of California–Berkeley, where he studied and taught in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program. He earned an MFA from New York University and was recently a 2016–18 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Zamora has been granted fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, MacDowell Artist Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and Yaddo. The recipient of a 2017 Lannan Literary Fellowship, the 2017 Narrative Prize, and the 2016 Barnes and Noble Writer for Writers Award, Zamora’s poems appear in Granta, the Kenyon Review, Poetry, the New York Times and elsewhere. Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon, 2017) is his first collection. He lives in Cambridge, where he is a 2018–19 Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard University. As part of the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 16, Zamora will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at the Brooklyn Historical Society with Marwa Helal and Daniel Tobin.

Doctor’s Office First Week in This Country

it’s procedure to inspect
the ass of an immigrant kid

undress put this gown on
the doctor will be here soon

that first day after Sonoran Desert
I showered for hours when we got to parents’ apartment

Father showed me the way to turn the knob that first day
how things worked

I hadn’t seen him since I was one
I didn’t know him know him

this is how you make your pee-pee grow he said so it’s bigger so it’s
     the biggest
he said sometime that first month or that first year
pull I did
do it now
you’re young
it will work he said

did anything happen the doctor asked in front of my parents
then alone
did anything happen along the way in Spanish
all of this in Spanish
starting with es procedimiento

this is how you get hot water
twist then pull

I’d never used a sponge
soap-bar and hand was enough back there next to a well

I’d never seen a “shower”
parents said it that way in English chá-uer

that first “shower”
my dirt drew a dark rim around the linoleum

you will hear from us next week
I came back for all the necessary shots

I grew up across the street from a clinic
every kid cried

I came back I got shot I didn’t cry

I kept turning the wrong knob
even after Dad showed me

then Mom showed me
then we showered together

to make me comfortable with my own body again
with theirs
with anyone’s

it burned that first time
my skin
hot water
nothing happened

it burned
I’m sure
seguro que
nada pasó

—From Unaccompanied, Copper Canyon, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem took a while to arrive at a version I was proud of. Reading Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home and Bonsai somehow unlocked the content and the form. This was one of the first poems in which I didn’t use any punctuation from the very first draft. The lack of punctuation allowed me to get into the content of the poem.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve had a long dry spell since my book came out. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s next. Right now, I’m in the very very early stages (still ninety-eight percent in my head) of a memoir. The intent is a memoir in verse. I’m sure it will change once I hit the desk.

What’s a good day for you?

A great day starts with a run, preferably outside. Then a first draft of a poem/essay written after one or two iced americanos. Then reading a book recommendation that’s actually surprising. Between these insert comfort food: medium-rare cheeseburger, pupusas, tacos, pizza, etc. Then, one or two tequilas shared with a loved one.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Since I was in El Salvador, I always wanted to live in NYC. It had been a dream of mine. Having the opportunity to attend NYU for my MFA made that possible.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

Dean St and Nostrand Ave was home for most of my time in NYC. The best dollar pizza is right outside the A-train stop. My favorite barber is a block away at Fabian’s. One-dollar doubles and amazing roti nearby. I miss it. I miss the different cultures in such a small space. This was a huge Trinidadian neighborhood. A lot has changed, is changing, we all know the story.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Mom visited me my first year in the MFA. I took her to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to BK and ended up at the pier with Walt Whitman. On our way to the pier, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio on a CitiBike. Mom hadn’t noticed him. As he rode past us, I told her, “That was Leonardo DiCaprio.” She freaked out and decided to run after him. Surprisingly, no one had recognized him. She asked him if he was Leo. “Of course I am,” he said. “Can I take a picture with you?” “Definitely not.” And he rode off. I’ve hated him since.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

Reading was how I began to find my community: examples of people that had lived through something I was living through, road maps of support. This is still how I participate in “community.” In the MFA I found friends, some I still talk to, but I’m mostly a loner.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets that have been important to you.

Before moving to BK, on my visit to NYU, I visited John Murillo. He used to live near Dean and Nostrand then. Aracelis Girmay also lived near. I didn’t know her, but for some reason I kept running into her walking in BK, walking in Manhattan. These two poets have been very important to me, on and off the page. They show a true dedication to the communities they come from.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

When I published my chapbook Nueve Años Inmigrantes I received a Facebook message from Eduardo Corral. He helped me with my MFA search and during the first few weeks I was in town, he took me out to buy some poetry books. He’s been a sort of mentor ever since, like he has been to so many poets. I will never forget his support. I try to be that supportive to writers, but of course come short.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’m currently reading Jose Antonio Vargas’s memoir, Dear America. I think it’s the first time a memoir was written by someone who was actually undocumented and still is. Who controls the narrative is very important. His book is reminding me that the media has let non-undocumented people control the master narrative regarding immigration. This book tries to shatter that.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I come from a fishing village in El Salvador. My dad was a fisherman. My grandpa was a fisherman. My uncles are still fishermen. I think this year I will try to tackle Moby-Dick.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I try to keep it to one book per genre. Meaning I cannot read two poetry books at once, but I’m always reading a book of poems and memoir/fiction simultaneously. Like most writers, I own too many books I’ve yet to get to. So my reading list depends on what’s up next in the queue. Currently, I’m excited for Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us. And always physical books, never digital.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I want to write something that doesn’t use the words “I,” “my” or “me.”

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

It’s actually very hard for me to write at home. Cafés are where I get most of my work done.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden was my jam when I lived nearby. Flowers and nature remind me of my grandma and El Salvador. When I lived there, this was the closest I got to home.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate love,
And what I’ve healed you cherish,
For every mistake, forgive me as good Brooklyn you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because Biggie.